a group of happy, healthy-looking college students studying at a table

It’s time to redefine student success

Higher ed is stuck in the paradigm that if college students complete their degrees, they will be successful

In higher ed today, student success is focused on retention, graduation, or completion rates. Institutions appear to be stuck in the paradigm that if college students simply complete their degrees, they will be successful. Unfortunately, students are not really being taught how to define success for themselves, beyond institutional goals.

Whether measuring on a professional or personal basis, people are seeking a new set of success metrics. Some see success as aligning passions with career paths, but a LinkedIn survey found that only 30 percent of respondents find their dream job.

We offer another perspective: Student success is mental health and holistic well-being.

A different way of defining student success

The nation’s mental health and well-being are under duress. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness report on mental health and well-being:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million people—experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • 18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias.
  • Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.
  • Young adults aged 18-25 years have the highest prevalence of mental illness (22.1%) compared to adults aged 26-49 years (21.1%) and adults 50 years or older (14.5%).

To contribute to a healthier and happier society, university leaders need to relay to students the interconnectedness between mental health and well-being and student success. We need to redefine “student success” from being completion metrics to producing holistic well-being outcomes.

Holistic student success

A holistic framework for student success includes these eight dimensions of well-being:

  • Emotional – coping effectively with life and creating satisfying relationships. (Emotional well-being reduces incidences of sexual assault on campus, anxiety, binge drinking, et al.)
  • Spiritual – expanding our sense of purpose and meaning of life: for examples of life purpose curricula such as programs at Harvard and the University of Minnesota.)
  • Intellectual – recognizing creative abilities and finding ways to expand knowledge and skills.
  • Physical – recognizing the need for physical activity, a healthy diet, and sleep.
    Occupational – personal satisfaction and enrichment derived from one’s work. (This is a focus of a seminar at Stanford University.)
  • Financial – satisfaction with current and future financial situations.
  • Social – developing a sense of connection, belonging and a well-developed support system.
  • Environmental – good health by occupying pleasant, stimulating environments that support well-being.

(Adapted from A Wellness Approach, Swarbrick, M., 2006.)

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